Imagine you are a 10-year-old waking up on a Saturday morning and the only thing on your mind is what activities you want to do today. Take a look outside, is there enough room to run around for a game of tag with your buddies? Is it too grassy or rocky? Can you walk, ride, or skate to a local park? How far is it from your home? Is the equipment sturdy enough to play on? These are some things kids in your community may think about when they are going outside for a breath of fresh air. Taking time to create play spaces can encourage physical activity for youth of all ages and it’s the job of the community to make sure that local youth have safe, accessible ways to get out and go play so they can be their best and healthiest selves.
Louisiana ranked 45th out of 50 states in terms of childhood obesity in the 2021 edition of America’s Health Rankings with a percentage of 37.3%. When youth engage in play, they are not only exercising their bodies, but they are also exercising their minds by problem solving and they are learning how to be sociable by playing with others. According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), youth should get about 60 minutes of physical activity a day; in the aforementioned study, only 22% of youth ages 6-17 were considered physically active in Louisiana. Youth who don’t get active tend to face increased risk of factors that can lead to heart disease, hypertension, and stress-related disorders like anxiety and depression. Play time can sometimes be easier said than done, however, because there are many barriers to physical activity for youth; for example, some youth may have to get permission to play in certain areas and others may live far away with no safe path to walk or bike to their destination. By creating play spaces in our communities, we are able to combat some of the factors in our environment that deter youth from getting physically active and encourage healthy play and fitness behaviors for youth of all ages. An ideal play space would be one that is free from harmful materials (broken glass, large rocks, ant mounds, etc.), positioned away from traffic, and accessible by youth of all ages and abilities. Once you find the best area, you can create space for play by:
• Take the time to check if the outdoor environment is safe for play. Check for insects or rocks that can cause serious injuries. Monitor the traffic in your area help protect youth by arranging play items away from roads. Make or borrow outdoor exercise signs to encourage total body movement for youth and community members of all ages.
• Make the space inviting by providing toys or equipment. Purchase small items that don’t roll or bounce away easily so you can help smaller youth stay in designated play area. Use the space to help youth learn all about the environment around them – helping them find different plants or animals can get their bodies and minds moving! Connect with your local LSU AgCenter to see if there is a PlayStreets kit/guide or other materials you can check out.
• Do something fun indoors to get kids moving if outdoor space is limited or the weather isn’t favorable. In a large room, you could set a 1–3-minute timer and see how many times your little one(s) can safely run laps around an obstacle or back and forth through a hallway. You could use household items to create games. For example, colored paper placed evenly on the floor can become a “leap pad” jumping game that is quick and easy to set up. A soft ball can be used to play an old school group game like “hot potato”!
Creating safe play space is essential to the development of youth mentally, physically, and emotionally. Of course, there is always something that can be done to help the youth in the whole community. Being a part of a group of community leaders that can meet with local decision-makers to see what can be done to revitalize public parks or shared-use playgrounds on school campuses is a great way to make long-term, sustainable change where you live. Take a tour of playgrounds and parks with a community coalition or group of community leaders to see what improvements can be made. You can conduct a survey at a local playground or park to determine what the community wants to see there. There are many grants that provide funding to communities for revitalizing park spaces or making playground more accessible. Contact your local LSU AgCenter for more ideas on how to create play spaces in your healthy community!